Interstitial focus: Robin Hill’s ’Side by Side’ photographs to show in New York

Interstitial focus: Robin Hill’s ’Side by Side’ photographs to show in New York

Contemporary architecture is expected to be photogenic, but rarely do photographers make a comparative analysis of what’s before the lens. ‘Side by Side’ features Robin Hill’s photographs of Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, two of the most talismanic modern houses of the 20th century. Both comprising single-storey glass structures, each displays a very specific relationship with the landscape. Johnson’s house owed much to his relationship and admiration for Mies – the two men had worked closely together ever since the German had been at the Bauhaus in the 1930s. Johnson’s chutzpah and canny aesthetic instincts essentially made him the primary importer of modernism into America, a skill he later parlayed into a career creating corporate HQs, ping-ponging between styles.

Superficially, the Glass House appears to be a copy of Edith Farnsworth’s famous (and famously problematic) dwelling, even though the former was built first. Typically, Johnson played the connection for all it was worth, ultimately concluding in interviews that he had taken van der Rohe’s rigorous ‘anti-nature’ and Americanised it into a ‘house in the field’. Certainly, the two structures epitomise the great break in modernist ideology, a split between rigour and romanticism that has to some extent shaped the interpretation of ‘high’ modernism ever since.

Tellingly, ’Side by Side: Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House’ is on display at New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant. Housed within the Seagram Building on Park Avenue (although entered from 52nd Street), the Four Seasons opened in 1959 and became an instant destination. Fusing fine cuisine with Johnson’s elaborate designs and specially commissioned art, the interior was reputed, at the time, to cost a cool $5m. Cited by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee in 1989, it has been in the loving care of Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini since 1995. A proposal to alter the space was rejected by the commission last month, following campaigns led by the venerable Phyllis Lambert, who had overseen the original commission for the building. It was Lambert who advised her father Edgar Bronfman, owner of the Seagram Corporation, to pair Johnson with van der Rohe. Yet despite this Manhattan original receiving the legal protection it deserves, von Bidder and Niccolini look unlikely to keep their lease beyond July 2016. Watch this space, and hopefully enjoy design, food and art in the process. 

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